Read Time: 14 minutes
Associate Professor Brenda Cowan of the department of Exhibition and Experience Design at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology (New York) shares her theory and framework for the connection among people, objects and mental health called “Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics,” in part two of a three-part series for SEGD.org.
Exhibitions and Objects of Wellness: Part 2, Mental Health in Museums
By Brenda Cowan, Associate Professor, department of Exhibition and Experience Design, SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology
“I felt a certain vulnerability (looking at the objects). It was the humanizing aspect, what was and what isn’t anymore.”
“This museum shows we are stubborn children of war. We showed them! This museum will show kids are kids. We are all one. We weren’t Muslim or Christian or Serbs or Croats, we were children! All the same.”
“I’m glad because they [objects] were given a purpose and if they can help others—and maybe I believe in Utopia—maybe they will reach someone, someone’s consciousness. [And create] a feeling of hopefulness.”
“I was surprised at my emotions, being sensitive. When I visited, hearing someone’s story…it was comforting in a way. It was human.”
“[The exhibition] is so valuable, evocative, emotional, honest. It’s the opposite of manipulation. It makes me hungry for more. There is something that allows people to share these stories. They are honest without any discomfort. It’s connections.”
“I felt very much a kind of connection, thinking about the garments that I’ve saved and others have saved. This exhibition really made me think of these things and why I’ve hung onto the things I have. It made me think about others’ clothes and my clothes in a deep way.”
“There is so much hope [here]. People stopped to think about the things that are valuable to them as people, as families.”
“The museum is really important and has a lot of meaning for the world. It is important because of other people—for the world.”
Through objects we can see our humanness; we can hear our one shared voice. The entirety of this article could be quotes from the people I interviewed when researching the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, and their words—perhaps more than mine—would tell you everything you need to know to understand the theory. Beyond that, they would tell you everything you will ever need to affirm your hope and belief in humanity.
Subsequent to the formation of the theory in 2015, I entered into a three-year empirical research phase. I was determined to find illustrative examples of the object dynamics at work in museums of different types and explore just what health and healing in exhibitions looks like. In the years to follow, I would discover just how powerful object experiences are; and, in four remarkable museums I would meet people who would change me forever.
In setting up the research protocol I teamed up with therapists Ross Laird and Jason McKeown who would work with me in data collection at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York, the Derby Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, England and the Museum at FIT in New York. Research associate Melisa Delibegovic, an exhibition designer and survivor of the Bosnian War, teamed-up with me to conduct interviews at the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo Bosnia-Herzegovina, following the same methodology I had established with Laird and McKeown. The interviews were with individuals already known to the museums: people who had relationships as donors of personal objects to collections, repeat visitors, staff and volunteers.
Working with therapists was essential to the qualitative process, not only to provide the necessary expertise to ground the therapeutic elements of the object dynamics, but to ensure that the interview process was ethical and safe for participants. Laird and McKeown’s expertise at the table meant we could explore participants’ responses deeply and in a natural, heuristic manner, while being mindful of their emotional safety. The interview scripts sought information about participants’ relationships with the museums, the roles and meanings of objects in their museum-based experiences, and how those object experiences made them feel.
We also welcomed participants to bring along meaningful objects from their everyday lives, things that their exhibition experiences inspired them to think of. As we progressed through the studies, I came to realize that these were more than simply interviews, they represented (in some instances) whole lifetimes, replayed with trust and honesty by people for whom objects and museums had enriched their lives, much as their sharing was enriching mine.
Identifying sites for the empirical research phase required very specific criteria. Conducting this work would be sensitive for the interview participants, so I sought out museum partners that had positive and established relationships with their staff, volunteers and audience constituencies so that there was a basis for trust and confidence. Some form of object-based engagement was needed; individuals would have directly interacted with museum objects either through object donation, exhibition co-creation, curation, restoration, or other form of object-specific participation.
Additionally, the museum objects referenced needed to be familiar, relatable and open to subjective interpretation by participants, so I sought out museums with exhibitions that incorporated mundane, everyday objects in some way—even if those objects were thousands of years old. The four museums chosen provided a highly diverse sample—culturally, ethnically and socioeconomically—with a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences.
Between 2016 and 2018, reflections, recollections, insights, experiences and explanations were collected from 83 participants, resulting in a body of data that robustly demonstrated that when people encounter objects in museum settings—in one way or another—they are fostering their psychological health. For some, their object experiences enhanced feelings of well-being and being restored, in other examples, people were experiencing more profound processes of trauma-healing.
“I feel more relaxed. I feel more reposed here as a result [of viewing the objects]. Totally different.”
“It’s about connections. Being in the museum and being a part and with the objects improves my life.”
“You feel a little bit of weight was lifted off you... It was time. It kind of helped me to move forward a little.”
“The objects in the exhibition made me think of caring and repairing. I could get more life out of the things I own. Care taking is something I get better at as I get older—you’ve got to show up, you have to take care.”
“I was happy to donate. I’m a part of the museum. It’s like I’m standing with them (objects) at the museum. I love them now even. I’m so proud!...[I’m]a part of a bigger thing.”
“I feel more relaxed in a way. Sharing the objects, my stories, makes me feel relaxed. It’s important to hear stories, it helps us forgive. We can’t heal society but we can heal ourselves.”
I had already known that people love talking about their relationships with objects, and it turned out that they also love talking about their experiences with museums and exhibitions. In each case study, a portrait emerged from the interview responses of the unique relationships between the museums and their constituencies. In each of the four studies, common themes revealed that participants saw the museums as integral parts of their local communities and even of the world. For some, museums were like family members and friends, and for some, museums were allies in their times of need.
At the National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, we spoke with widows, survivors, first responders and relatives of victims, each of whom had given an object to the permanent collection. The museum’s collection includes thousands of donated objects from individuals deeply impacted from the tragedy. It is a powerful example of the practice of co-creation and participation with a subject-specific constituency. In the interviews, participants described their objects as having borne witness to the event, to their own experience, and as necessary for keeping the memory of their loved one alive. For many, these objects carried the weight of the event, of their grief, of their loss and of their trauma. The ability to donate to the collection provided a much-needed next step in their healing journey. The museum had become a means for psychological progression and repair, for becoming a part of a larger community, for making the event “real,” and for keeping their object—and all that it represents—safe:
“The museum is a better steward of the object than me.”
“The museum is a protector of the objects. I can see them anytime.”
“I feel a tether to the museum, and that feels good. [It gives] permanence to my story of that day. It’s scaffolding.”
At the War Childhood Museum in Bosnia-Herzegovina, we spoke with object donors, international audience members and members of the museum staff and leadership. The participants expressed tremendous feelings of pride, agency and community. They described feelings of synergy and connectivity to the war, to the museum, and to each other that was quite intense. To them, the museum not only fostered opportunities for healing, but also sent a strong and impactful message of peace and the need for reconciliation to the rest of the world. The museum was a means of civic engagement that had been lacking in their lives—even for those who were tourists and only visiting Sarajevo briefly. The interviewees described feelings of resilience and personal power as a result of their object experiences:
“My scream [object] is a small scream. Together in this whole picture with the other objects, it’s one big message to never do this again...This is a process of waking up this empathy.”
“The museum has helped me realize I want to do work with refugees... I had an idea of that before but now I know for sure. It’s become more real. I want people to see this place and experience the feeling I did so we can make a better place for others.”
“I have a lot of respect for the people who donated. I understand how meaningful objects are to people. I think about wanting to hold onto memories and emotions… but also being able to move on from the trauma. I have a lot of respect for the people who donated.”
Derby, England, is a highly socioeconomically, culturally and ethnically diverse city that includes a large population of immigrants and a growing number of refugees from Africa and the Middle East. At the Derby Museum & Art Gallery we interviewed audience members, staff, volunteers and individuals who were visiting and/or working with co-creating the institution’s permanent World Cultures exhibition. Additionally, we spoke with people who were sharing photographs and stories of personal objects with a digital exhibit within “World Cultures” entitled “Objects of Love.” Despite the great diversity in this sample, participants spoke about their object experiences in and with the museum in very unified ways.
People described feelings of community and connectivity to others in both the museum and to the city of Derby as a result of their participation, and a portrait of deeply personalized object relationships was revealed. Interviewees spoke about their objects as bearing witness to world events as well as to events in their own lives. Objects around them in the exhibition and the personal objects they were sharing were storytellers, self-identifiers, family members, friends, and a means of being seen and heard. Sharing their personal objects enabled people to “leave their mark,” and feel loved, accepted, and present.
“I wanted to be a part of something, a group. You feel valued. Here there is a sense of purpose and achievement. Connecting with people.”
“I’ve become acutely aware of my gratefulness. Things that were once negative can now be positive. These things help me build myself up through a bad time. Each item represents a part in my healing journey.”
“I was proud to share my objects. I felt valued. I felt part of Derby Museum’s history. I felt passionate. I felt like part of a team. It was joyful and fun!”
“I specifically came here so I could participate in sharing my object [with the museum]. Being a participant is important. I can just let go, be quiet. Feel respite.”
The Museum at FIT in New York has a great breadth of audiences including international tourists, Fashion Institute of Technology students, faculty and subject matter experts. At the time of the case study, the museum was featuring garments displaying wear, personalization and imperfection in its major spring exhibition “Fashion Unraveled.”
In addition to the collection of clothing on display, the exhibition included an open-sourced digital exhibit titled “Wearing Memories.” Wearing Memories was a collection of photographs and stories of personal everyday garments that had been contributed through an online call for entries. Participants who were interviewed were primarily visitors to the exhibition, some of whom who had also contributed to the digital Wearing Memories collection.
Because clothing objects are deeply personal and intimate, it was not surprising how moved participants were by seeing the objects on display and how connected they felt to those that showed repair, personalization and signs of wear. Expressions of self-identity, connections to family, personal milestones, memories of childhood and meaningful life transitions were shared with emotion. The exhibition and its objects prompted quiet self-reflection, moments of self-awareness and introspection.
“I thought about all of the repurposing and reworking in the exhibition and the meaning of that.”
“I’ve gone several times—drawn to it because it’s the things you wouldn’t typically showcase. It becomes a personal connection. You want to dive a little deeper.”
“I remember mostly the garments that have been changed over time. One of the garments has been modified many times over the years. It really is emotional.”
“In Wearing Memories, the bodice of the childhood dress really resonated with me. It reminded me of my childhood and similar dresses my sister and I wore. This object really was a work of art.”
The case studies brought to light much more than the needed evidence of health, healing and well-being as defined in the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics. Participants in the empirical research studies—despite the great diversity they represented—tended to share similar object associations, interpretations, connectivity and meaning-making experiences, suggesting that people’s relationships with objects are universal in many ways. Over and again, I was hearing about objects as having “life” as a result of being placed in a museum setting.
A childhood survivor of war in Sarajevo, a refugee from the Middle East in England and a wealthy American visitor to a museum in New York all saw objects in exhibitions as having life. Museum staff and volunteers from different cultures, living in different countries, with very different circumstances, all felt that the objects around them and in their care felt like family and friends.
Visitors to each of the four different museums in my studies described objects that were familiar as having particular importance. A childhood toy displayed in a museum in Eastern Europe, that was the same kind of toy owned by an American and also by an Ethiopian, brought the same smile to the faces of three different people whose paths will most likely never cross. Each of these objects had tremendous value, personal meaning and generated excitement when being spoken about. These objects elicited joy and personal sharing that went well beyond what the interview scripts had intended. These objects were the means by which I myself experienced the joy of being with people. People who saw their world as a shared one filled with life.
A lot has happened since 2018. (Has it really only been a year?) In the summer of 2019, I brought the theory into practical application and used it as an instrument for exhibition evaluation. Stay tuned for a third and final article about the exhibition evaluation project I performed with the National Museums of World Culture in Sweden. The exhibition, “Stories From Syria,” was a breathtaking display of personal objects belonging to Syrian refugees, lovingly co-created by the Swedish Syrian community and the Medelhavet Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm. As an evaluation tool, Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics enabled me to work with the Syrian co-creators of the exhibition and staff of Medelhavet to identify the healthful and healing outcomes of that exhibition experience and evaluate the powerful impact it had on everyone involved.
Note: It is challenging taking tens of thousands of words from several years of study and making them a reasonable read for folks pressed for time. Before the next installment, SEGD is kindly publishing an excerpt from “Museum Objects, Health and Healing,” a monograph I co-authored with Laird and McKeown. The book is a deep dive into the theory and the studies that formed it and includes many of the words and stories of the incredible museums and people mentioned here. The excerpt is a piece from several interviews where people shared particularly meaningful object experiences that I would be willing to bet are familiar to you in one way or another. I hope you get a chance to take a look and I hope you fall in love with these moments as much as I have.